The men who should have been there dancing with the girls were dead

Ukrainian Women Dancing

“There were so few of them, young men of marriageable age. There were very young boys, but the men who should have been there dancing with the girls were dead”. [John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal]

There’s a huge, huge danger in looking at other cultures and assuming that they are just like us (for any given definition of “us”). Worse, there can be an unthinking danger of looking at another culture and thinking they should be like us. Worse yet, is the assumption that if a culture is not like “us” then they’re somehow wrong or inferior.

Cultures are like people. They change and grow and develop. They are shaped by their natural environment. They are influenced by their interactions with others, both positive and negative. They respond to, and try to cope with, past events. I’ve spent a year in rural Africa, eight years in Asia, and now half a year in Russia, and that’s not counting interactions with people from other cultures while I was living in the UK (and let’s not even start talking about the differences between the UK’s own native cultures…). If this has taught me nothing else, it’s that we need to engage with other cultures on their own terms, not to take it for granted that our own culture is innately superior.

Imagine a nation in which most of the men have been killed in war, and many of those who survived are traumatised. Imagine that this nation, when war came, had only just begun to recover from famine and mass starvation, and the destruction of its traditions. Imagine that, two generations after the war, the state collapsed completely, leaving mass poverty and a moral void.

What would it be like to be a woman in such a society? A society where most women who want to marry and raise families can’t – because there aren’t enough men? How would it affect notions of femininity and a woman’s role? And when those men who are of marriageable age have been through experiences such as this, how does it affect their behaviour?

Since both Korneichuk and Poltarazki had been soldiers, we asked them about the fighting which had gone on in the area. And Poltarazki told a story which is very hard to forget. He told of being with a Russian patrol which was sent to attack a German outpost. And he said that they had been so long getting there, and the snow had been so deep, and the cold so severe, that when they finally made their attack, their hands and their arms and their legs were stiff. “We had nothing to fight with, except one thing,” he said. “That was our teeth. I dreamed about that afterward. It was so horrible.” [John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal]

Do you tear out your enemy’s throat with your teeth, when it’s him or you fighting to the death in the bitter frost, and then go home afterwards and live a normal life?

I was visiting a client company recently, and my students were talking about their grandparents’ experiences in the Great Patriotic War, and about the profound effects the war had had on Russian society. In the quotes above, Steinbeck was talking about Ukraine, where things were worse – both in the war, and in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

As I’ve mentioned before, both on this blog and elsewhere, the experience of the old Soviet peoples is pretty much incomprehensible to those of us from the West; neither our families nor our societies have experienced trauma on anything like the scale of the old Warsaw Pact countries. We can listen, and learn, and try to understand, though. To simply expect societies and cultures which have gone through their experiences, experiences utterly alien to us, and expect them to think the way we do is idiotic. To condemn or abuse them for not thinking the way we do is arrogance, at the very least.

Here’s the original context of the quote I used above:

In the evening we walked down through the village to the club house. As we passed the pond a boat came across it, and there was music in the boat, a curious music. The instruments were a balalaika, a little drum with a small cymbal, and a concertina, and this was the dance music of the village. The players moved across the little lake in the boat and landed in front of the club house.

It was quite a large building, the club. It had a small stage, and in front of the stage were tables with chess boards and checker boards, and then a dancing space, and then rows and rows of benches for spectators. There were very few people in the club when we went in, only a few chess players. We learned that the young people come back from the fields, and have their supper, and then rest for an hour, even sleep for an hour, before they come to the club.

The stage was set up for a little play that night. There were big pots of flowers on a table, and two chairs, and, upstage, a large portrait of the President of the Ukrainian Republic. The little three-piece orchestra came in, and set up its instruments, and began to play. The young people drifted in, strong girls, their faces washed and shiny. Only a few young men came.

The girls danced together. They wore bright print dresses, and head-cloths of colored silk and wool, and their feet were almost invariably bare. And they danced with fury. The music had a rapid beat, accentuated by drum and cymbal. The bare feet beat the floor. The boys stood around and watched. We asked a girl why she did not dance with the boys. She said, “They are good for marrying, but there are so few of them since the war that a girl only gets into trouble if she dances with them. Besides, they are very bashful.” And then she laughed and went back to her dancing.

There were so few of them, young men of marriageable age. There were very young boys, but the men who should have been there dancing with the girls were dead.

The energy of these girls was unbelievable. All day they had been working in the fields, since daylight in fact, and yet after one hour of sleep they were prepared to dance all night. The men at the chess tables played on, unmoved and unbothered by the noise that went on around them.

[John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal]

I mention this because of a couple of new articles I’ve come across recently about Katerina Tarnouska and her Asgarda movement in the Ukraine. I’ve written about her a few times in the past.  The first is an article in Vice: The Warrior Women of Asgarda, a rather interesting interview with Tarnouska.  However, embedded in the article is a short documentary about the Asgarda movement which really strikes me as incredibly patronising, and dismissive of what Asgarda are trying to do. It takes the position that because Asgarda don’t talk or behave like American feminists they’re not to be taken seriously. This makes me rather annoyed, given the vast gulf between the American and the Ukrainian experiences.

The film is also discussed in a generally good article in Prospect Magazine: The Secrets of Asgarda’s Warrior Women.

Still: read, watch, and make up your own mind. For my part, I continue to respect Tarnouska and Asgarda, and wish them well.

Image Credit: Epiphany rituals cleanse Orthodox faithful in Eastern Europe by Peter Haden on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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